The day my parents married in 1967, forty-six years ago. It all started with a guy named Cheshire, who was good friends with Mama and Daddy individually, introducing the two of them while they were in college at Valdosta State. He had already let Mama read some of the things Daddy had written. It seems like the first meeting was somewhere like a Laundromat, but I can’t be sure.
At the end of their meeting, the VERY FIRST TIME EVER they had met I want you to remember, my Mama looked up from her 4’10” stance at Daddy’s over six-foot tall self and said, “I could fall madly in love with you, Mr. Joyner.”
Oh my. We are all so thankful they did wind up marrying. How embarrassing would THAT have been?
Just kidding, Mama. You know we love that story. And she loved telling it. And she’d look over at Daddy and wrinkle her nose, which is how she often said “I love you.” There was never any doubt.
Ten years and four children later, they moved their three girls, three-month old baby boy, and several cats out to Blackberry Flats. It has been home ever since. Our move-in date was actually December 17. What better way to celebrate ten years of marriage?
That was the beginning of another adventure, and over the years Mama and Daddy made it their own. From Mama’s trademark light green paint to Daddy’s building and the trees they planted all over–it became home. It got its name when a family friend brought us over some blackberries that were beyond the point of eating. Bless her. After she left, Mama had me tote the blackberries out to the “high grass,” which is where we took scraps and brush and stuff like that–toward the back part of the property. As it turned out, those blackberries loved being in that soil and they took off. After years of Daddy fighting them by burning the prickly briars off, he and the bushes reaches a compromise–he let them have the fence line. There are still some there today. Thus the name Blackberry Flats was born.
There were some things that were important at Blackberry Flats, growing up with Mama and Daddy at the helm. Trying your best. That was one of the things they would ask often, “Well, did you try your best?” Telling the truth. Storytelling (we didn’t use the word “lying” back then) was frowned upon. Eating what was put before you. There was no whining about mushrooms in the spaghetti. (Well, okay, there was, but well, I really, really couldn’t stomach them and I regretted the whining every time I did it.) Being responsible. We all had chores, and we were expected to pitch in. And then some. Pick up after yourselves, and if you see something that needs doing, do it. Get along with one another. Mama would quote a children’s play we had seen at Wesleyan–“I’m sure you’re all really very wonderful.” Which was our signal to cut it out, because maybe she was beginning to question how wonderful we were, and we were treading on thin ice. We were expected to show respect, say yes ma’am/no ma’am, yes sir/no sir. We were to be good stewards of what we had, what we’d been given–that included everything from the things around us to our physical beings and our spirits and our abilities and the people around us.
Another thing about Blackberry Flats was that learning was of the utmost importance. And so was reading.
We grew up with frequent trips to the library. Mama was very involved with the Friends of the Library. She helped with storytimes and eventually became a Rolling Reader at the school all four of us had attended. She loved it and stopped only when Daddy got sick. Many of the children knew her as “Maemae,” (me-me) the name that her grandchildren all called her. Her fun science experiments and wonderful storytelling were her trademarks.
Children’s books were Mama and Daddy’s favorites. They enjoyed looking up new books and discovering new authors. Their all-time favorite was “Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm” by Alice and Martin Provensen. Mama and Daddy loved sharing the book with children they met along the way. One of their favorite things to do was choosing the perfect books for their grand nieces and nephews and their grandchildren.
The past few years I remember Mama trying to find a good Christmas or winter story to share. For the fun of it and in memory of the woman with whom I’ve spent every Christmas except for the two I lived in Japan, I set out on the journey to find the 2013 holiday story. I browsed through picture books and animal stories, snow covered tales and retellings of the nativity story. And one day, I was wandering through the virtual bookstore–I apologize to my local bookseller, but some days it’s the only way to shop while supervising the zoo crew around here–and I saw several holiday stories by an author who also had a book I recognized in her list of published works. “G is for Goat” by Patricia Polacco.
Oh my. The tears began to flow.
Mama had chosen that one for my sweet Cousin’s daughter one year. She had been thrilled. She called me to celebrate her triumph. “Don’t you think it’s the perfect book for her?” And it really was.
Seeing that Ms. Polacco, whom Mama had so loved, had a large selection of holiday and winter stories to choose from felt like a nod from Mama–a wink and a thumbs up. “You found it, T. Annie,” I could almost hear her whisper.
After scanning summaries and reading some of the books themselves, I finally chose this year’s Holiday Book. Drum roll, please.
This is a beautiful story about a family who celebrates Christmas with aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings, parents, and cousins. The beautiful colors and traditions will touch your heart. The throwing of the rice on the ceiling to foretell how many bees will come will make you laugh (as long as you remind yours we don’t do that!), and the bowl filled for those who are no longer with them will bring tears to your eyes. And the words, “We remember.”
But it’s not a sad book. Not at all. It’s full of life and joy. When the aunt unwraps the ornaments and decorates the tree as though it’s a gift to the family, you can feel her joy and the anticipation of the others.
If you haven’t had a chance to love this book, I want you to. In honor of the ones who helped me discover the joy of reading and the beauty in children’s literature and who started their lives together forty-six years ago today, I am giving away a copy of “Uncle Vova’s Trees” by Patricia Polacco. Share in the comments section or e-mail me your favorite holiday or winter story and your e-mail address. I will randomly select someone on Wednesday, December 18th at noon EST to send Ms. Polacco’s book to. My hope is for you to have this wonderful story to share with those you care about in time for the weekend.
Just a beautiful story. Even though the people are of another culture and they live where there are sleigh rides and snow, I find these people to be my kindred spirits. They believe in faith, family, laughter, and love. They know what is important, from remembering those living in the winter weather to remembering those who have gone before. And honoring their memory.
Merry memory-making, my friends. Love to all.